Today’s a big day. You’re walking across campus toward the gym, toward the abrupt end of the familiar path you’ve been walking for years. This is what you’ve prepared for; this is the finish line that has glimmered on the horizon through all those years of schooling and dreaming. Today’s agenda is crammed, but tomorrow will open into the wild unknown.
Who will I be? Whom will I love? Where will I land? How will I make my mark?
You’re worried about a lot of things – trust me, I know – even though you’re trying to play it cool under that thin black robe. You are surprised at its flimsiness; you thought it would feel more substantial on your shoulders. You thought this day would feel more substantial, too, but it’s already gliding by.
You’ve smuggled a pen and a crossword puzzle torn from today’s Oregonian inside your sleeve, a visible sign that this ceremony is SO not a big deal to you. The puzzle is a lie, of course, an attempt to give your mind a red herring, to distract it from anxieties that buzz around your eyes like gnats.
You are worried about love.
This makes you feel pathetic, and like a complete failure as a feminist, but it’s true nonetheless. You’ve fallen in love fairly recently. It’s a risky, fragile love, one sprung from the ruins of last year’s epic heartbreak, when you were emotionally decimated and had to pull yourself out of despair with several rounds of anti-depressants.
That heartbreak is still alive for you. The love dried up, but the taste of rejection remains in your mouth, at the back of your throat. You’re worried it will never leave, but I promise it will. You’ll gradually forget this guy who broke your heart. Not too far in your future, you’ll stop thinking of him entirely – aside from that occasional fantasy that you randomly run into him, on a day you look particularly a-mazing, and have a chance to tell him what a wonderful life you have now. You want him to know that he never really broke you. Which is true. He didn’t.
And now this second love has appeared, even though you are still reeling. I admit, it’s hardly the formula for a healthy, lasting relationship: you’re on the rebound, and he’s in the throes of an existential crisis, living in a Portland townhouse with a bunch of other guys, who are also in the throes of existential crises. Everyone’s looking for answers at the bottom of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. No one is showering regularly. It’s a bit of a mess.
He is a man at sea, and you’re on the shoreline, beckoning – trying not to look too desperate.
You’re supposed to go to France at the end of summer, to teach English to bitchy French youths in Rouen for a year. You’re supposed to set out on this adventure solo, untethered to anyone. But, secretly, you’re already thinking of not going, even though you won’t admit this to yourself – and certainly not to him.
Well, I like spoilers, so I’ll tell you what happens. You give up France for him. And it might surprise you to find out that, in a little over a year, you marry this guy. He gets over his existential crisis (for the most part) and starts showering regularly (for the most part). And even though it seems like a recipe for disaster right now, things turn out really well. Beautifully, in fact. You are grotesquely happy together. And you make cute babies.
After you get married, people will ask, “So how do you like being married?” And you’ll be unsure how to answer, because although you love being married to Michael, you also now realize how hellish married life could be if you had entangled yourself with the wrong person. You’ll think about the guy before Michael, how miserable you’d make each other, and you’ll feel strangely grateful that he broke your heart.
You are worried about God.
Or, more accurately, you’re worried about Not God. You’re worried about God’s absence.
Doubt is a source of fear and guilt for you right now, I know. Your faith was once like a completed Jenga game, a tower of smooth wooden blocks that fit perfectly together, no spaces between or unfinished tiers. This tower did not move – but neither did it breathe. It stood tall, but precariously so; if the wind came through, the blocks would be scattered. So you’ve had to keep the windows locked up tight.
This was faith for you – until you arrived at college, where someone said: Open the windows. Let the air in. Breathe.
You grew up confusing faith with certainty, and now that the certainty is gone, you are worried your faith has self-immolated in a final, futile protest.
I want to offer you some comfort. You’ll realize this for yourself in a couple of years, but I’ll go ahead and tell you now: this is not a real death. This is a rebirth. A startling bird of fire will rise up from those ashes. Your faith is in the midst of metamorphosis, unfurling from something rigid and immobile into something beautiful, mysterious, and uncaged.
You will grow to understand that to be human is to live in a state of unknowing, and the doubt you now fear is actually a vital dimension of your faith.
You are worried about THE FUTURE.
Everybody is asking, “What’s next? What are you going to do with your life?” As if there is only one thing one does with one’s life. You don’t know how to answer that question, and that’s okay. You don’t have to know. You’ll do many things.
I’ll be honest, though. It will be hard to transition into post-college life, where you are not told, every three or four months, how well you are doing and how you should improve. You’ve been trained to live relentlessly looking forward; you’ve been taught to anchor yourself in the future, to root your self-worth in achievable goals and the approval of your parents, your pastors, your professors, your peers.
You have learned to live impatiently, anxiously waiting for that final moment of Arrival.
But it will never come. Or, what I mean to say is: that moment is always already here. This is it; you have arrived. Your “real life” doesn’t begin on the day you graduate, or the day you get married, or the day you become a mother for the first time. Those big moments are wonderful and exhilarating, but they flash and vanish. “Real life” is what happens in between.
If there is any piece of advice I can offer you, it is this (and I say this as much to myself as to you, because we still share many neuroses):
Don’t think of your life as a ladder to climb, rung by rung, toward an always-shifting terminus. Imagine a spiral, pinwheeling outward from the present moment, the murky past and the inchoate future swirling around you, inscrutable. You’re in the epicenter of that storm, and that is where you must learn to live, in the quiet eye of now.
Try, even just for today, your graduation day, to forget about the future entirely. Stop searching out there for that Holy Grail that will make you feel complete, because it’s actually right here, in the flickering light of the present. Look at your hands; you’re holding it already. Raise it high to toast what surrounds you before it all disappears, and take a long, soulful drink.
Then, go do that crossword.
A few years ago, when I was living in Scotland, I went to a psychic for a tarot card reading. Actually, I went twice, because the first attempt was a total flop. After staring deeply into my soul across a dingy card table for five solid minutes, the psychic told me she couldn’t see anything. I was blank. There was some sort of cosmic blockage.
She gave me my money back, suggested we reschedule, and I walked around for the rest of the day convinced that I was about to be hit by a bus – which, in the UK, is a very real possibility at any moment. Pedestrians beware.
I was in grad school at the time, in the throes of PhD research, and pretty much constantly plagued with doubt about whether or not I would ever score a tenure-track gig in a completely glutted job market. I was also working part-time in a little shop full of new age wonders, like enormous quartz phalluses and kitschy little books about angels by someone named Doreen Virtue, Ph.D.
It was in the tiny back room of this shop where I had the reading, from a local psychic who came in on Saturdays. I loosened up a bit on the second visit. I let my guard down, played along, and, unsurprisingly, she was full of insights into The Future. Not so much MY future, though; she mainly went on about my husband, how he would get a good job, be successful, how we would travel a lot (not a shocking leap, considering I was obviously an American living abroad). I kept waiting for her to get to the juicy details about my career prospects, but all that I can remember her saying about me is that:
1) I was an Egyptian man in a former life.
2) I was going to have three kids.
I’ll spare you the obvious commentary about how annoying it was that she assumed I was primarily concerned about Michael’s career. (Apparently she was not able to intuit the huge feminist chip on my shoulder.) I want to write about that last thing, her one prediction that’s stuck with me, the one about me having three kids.
You see, the truth is, I’ve always wanted to have three kids.
Remember, O fellow children of the 80s, that charmingly heteronormative game MASH? In elementary school, when I played MASH at the back of the school bus with friends, I was thrilled whenever I managed to dodge the nightmarish scenario of having twenty children and living in a shack with someone TOTALLY GROSS, instead landing the utopian vision of marrying my cute crush-of-the-moment, living in a nice house, driving a jeep Cherokee (the dream car of my pubescent self), and having three children.
Three: the perfect number. A holy number. Or so it has seemed to me, the youngest of two, who always wished for another sibling below me on the totem pole.
Since having Julian, and discovering that I actually love being a mother most of the time, and I might even be sort of good at it, this Trinitarian vision of procreation has resurfaced. I daydream about us as a family of five, Julian as the caring older brother to two younger siblings. I picture a noisy dinner table, a house full of chaos and love.
Unfortunately, my reproductive plan has a slight hitch.
Maybe you also remember that movie 12 Monkeys? Where David Morse plays a scientist who attempts to purge the earth of human beings, because we’re pretty much just a bunch of parasites, sucking the life out of our planet? Well, there are some days when it’s not too much of a stretch for me to imagine that Michael could one day be that guy.
Michael loves the earth. Maybe a little too much. He feels guilty every time he gets into a car. He is the reason we have a trash can that is a fraction of the size of our neighbors’ and yet never seems to get full. He is the reason we recycle. He is the reason we compost. I eat the organic vegetables he grows and the eggs from the chicks he raised, all on our little suburban plot. He weatherizes our house every winter; he installed a timer on our water heater; he programmed our thermostat to conserve energy. He convinced me to go with cloth diapers. While I love to take long, indulgent showers, Michael does that thing where he lathers up with the water off and only turns it on to rinse. Compared to the average American, he is Captain Planet (thankfully sans green mullet).
How does this relate to my baby dreams? Well, Michael is worried about overpopulation. Like, really worried. To the point where he feels that choosing to have more than two children would be morally wrong.
I have to admit that, although I understand his concerns on an intellectual level, I have a hard time not feeling exasperated at his dogged environmentalist principles – because, let’s be honest, whether we have one, two, or three children is not going to have any real cosmic impact. It’s only when you spiral things outward and say, “well, if everyone takes that approach…!” that you maybe get planetary doom and destruction.
Of course, this post isn’t really about tarot cards, or overpopulation. There’s another half-formed question lurking underneath all that, a question about how to live a simple, ordinary life as a finite being in a world that can swallow you whole with its brokenness.
Maybe you’ve heard of “disaster fatigue,” how people can only observe so much suffering before they experience a sense of paralysis or numbness, before they cope by not caring. I’m a master at this, particularly since becoming a mother. I shut things out. I disengage. I’ve written before about how I consciously avoid the news, even though that probably makes me a bad Citizen of the World. But I often feel a strong sense of moral obligation to dive back in, to educate myself on all the tragedies assailing humankind. Last week, I kept trying to force myself to read about Gosnell, thinking I need to know this. But I wonder: do I really? Do I need to be informed of every horror with front page potential?
And this question leads to another question: should the ills of the wider world always dictate our life choices? Should I curb my desire to have three children because of fears about climate change or overpopulation?
I like to watch Michael while he cooks. He moves around the kitchen easily, adeptly, despite our baby being strapped to his chest and the weight of the world resting on his shoulders. I want to tell him: care less. Be selfish, like me. Shut out the world. But of course, I love that roomy, guilt-ridden heart of his. I love that he gets mad at me when I throw a yogurt container away instead of putting it in the recycling. I love that he is someone who values the needs of humankind above his own. We need more people like him. That’s partly why I want to make babies with him, to grow a little tribe of humans who will choose, like their father, to live with intention and compassion — but hopefully without being crippled by apocalyptic guilt.
I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t care about the world, or the species, or humanity writ large. Caring is good. What I’m wondering is how that concern can and should translate into action. It’s hard to be a global citizen. It’s expensive, inconvenient, and perhaps, for Americans, nearly impossible to avoid being a human parasite on the globe. So what does “the good life” look like for us?
In response to this last question, I tend to zoom in until the faces in my immediate circle spring into clarity and the rest of the world is a distant blur. Michael zooms out – way out – trying to gather the whole human species in his scope. I know that if I weren’t married to Michael, my carbon footprint would be exponentially larger. I likely wouldn’t make intentional, ethical choices about food and energy consumption on my own. I would not be a Planeteer. But maybe being married to me is what will keep Michael from turning into the deranged scientist from 12 Monkeys.
I pretend I’m wise sometimes, that I have things figured out, but I don’t. I might not be an angsty grad student anymore, looking for reassuring answers from a back-room psychic; instead I’m an angsty mommy blogger, jonesing for more babies, with an environmentalist husband who wants to save the world.
Maybe Captain Planet has an answer for us. Maybe we can clear some middle ground between my pragmatism and Michael’s idealism and build our home there. Maybe – WITH OUR POWERS COMBINED!!! – we can figure out how to keep loving the earth, while also allowing ourselves to fully live on it.
…with three kids.